XIX. POLITICAL CHANGES.
[Sources of Government.]
President Woolsey has forcibly remarked that states and forms of government have had mainly two sources of origin. They have either "slowly built themselves up for ages, finding support in historical causes, and in past political habits"; or, they have been "the artificial results of political theory." England presents the most conspicuous modern example of the former class; while France, since the Revolution, may be regarded as the chief modern example of the latter. And as it was with England, our mother-country, so it has been, and is, with us. It is true that the organism of the United States was the immediate result of revolution, and is founded upon a constitution that is written and fixed, or only with great pains and difficulty modified. Yet, if we search further and deeper for the materials of which our national fabric has been constructed, we shall easily recognize that our freedom, like that of England, has really "broadened slowly down from precedent to precedent."
[Gradual Growth of the American System.]
The growth towards American independence did not begin, the seeds of it were not sown, either at Bunker's Hill or at Philadelphia. Indeed the growth had then reached the period of fruitfulness. The progression towards an independent nation, and a free nation, began at Plymouth and at Jamestown. The Constitution only made articulate the spirit which had been growing for more than a century, and it still left an unwritten law set up by custom, habit, and characteristics most aptly nourished to the ends reached in 1776, 1787, and 1789. While our written constitution was made, we still retained the common law of England as the basis of our own, and, like England, proceeded gradually to build upon this broad foundation the superstructure of statute.
[Origin of the Government.]
If, therefore, the origin of our government was in one respect revolutionary, it was not revolutionary as being sudden, accidental, and without preparation. The revolution was, in fact, almost formal in a political sense. The same people, the same traditions remained, and the same growth went on. There was a new bond, binding the colonies together, and holding them the more sturdily to purposes already formed and undertaken. Yet it was certain that a new government, starting forth, as ours did, at a period when political theories of diverse and contradictory import were engaged in a very active struggle in Europe, would meet with unusual difficulties, and be beset with grave dangers from the outset.
[The Contest of Diverse Political Ideas.]
We note, therefore, in the very body which framed the constitution, the rise of the contest out of which have come the most momentous changes which our polity has since undergone. Happily for us, we have had to witness no sudden and startling alterations in the form or spirit of our institutions. What changes have occurred - and some have occurred of very high and grave importance - have come gradually, have been foreseen. The victories of parties in this country have never been by coups d'etat. They have been won by light of day, with banners flying and trumpets sounding. We have not been subject to that dread of sudden calamity, of a bean-stalk growth of anarchy in a night, which haunts the French to this day, and which makes both kings and peoples in continental Europe sensitive to every untoward rumor.
Of all the political changes which the United States have undergone during the ninety-nine years of our national career, the most conspicuous, perhaps, is that which has tended to increase the powers of the central government, and diminish those of the several States. The contest between those who believed in a strong central power and those who jealously defended the largest share of independence for the several States compatible with the bond of federation, began in the Constitutional Convention; and the instrument which was there framed, after long discussion and many perils, was really a compromise between these two principles. On the one hand, the equality and dignity of the States were conceded in the structure of the Senate, in the division of the electoral votes by States, and in the "reserved rights" of the States, which have been so often and so strenuously insisted upon since.
[Early Political Parties.]
On the other, the words of the Constitution throughout imply that the United States constitute more than a league - a nation; and the money power was lodged in the lower house of Congress, elected by the people of the nation, according to their population. The opposing ideas regarding the powers of the States and of the government, respectively, gave rise to the two first political parties, the Federalist and the Republican; and these have had as successors parties which have fought the same battle over and over again. The later Whigs and Republicans, on the one hand, and the Democrats, on the other, have usually been the champions, respectively, of a strong central government, and of State rights. The older Democrats insisted on a strict construction of the Constitution, and opposed the undertaking of internal improvements and the maintenance of a national bank by the general government; and for the first sixty years of this century the State rights principle prevailed in national policy with little interruption.
[Rights of the States.]
[Tendency towards Centralization.]